Were it not for the spectators sporting sandals and shorts and shooting pictures with digital cameras, it would be easy to believe it's the latter half of the 19th century, not 2011, as 20 men dressed in Civil War uniforms perform a flag ceremony at Lincoln's Tomb on a summer evening.
For Jeanne Helmig of Lima, Ohio, whose grandfather and great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, watching the ceremony conducted by members of the 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry Reactivated at Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery was like "watching history." She added that it was "so impressive" because of its authenticity.
Helmig, who traveled with several family members to visit the Lincoln sites in Springfield, received the United States flag that had been flying at the tomb for a week. In the presence of a crowd generally numbering between 200 and 300, the unit removes the flag from the flagpole as part of a ceremony each Tuesday evening from June through August. The flag is then presented to the winner of a drawing, says James Patton of Springfield, an 18-year member of the 114th who holds the rank of lieutenant colonel. While only one spectator can take home the flag, each family in attendance receives a souvenir postcard picturing the 40-member unit.
An attraction at Lincoln's Tomb since 1982, the half-hour ceremony - the only one of its kind authorized at the historic site - also includes the playing of a drum and bugles and the firing of muskets and a cannon.
"Wow! It's solemn, but inspiring," Gail Filotei of Mobile, Ala., says of the ceremony.
Filotei added that she was impressed by the group's dedication to taking the time each week to volunteer for the ceremony. Helmig's daughter, Julie Hadding of Columbus Grove, Ohio, shared that sentiment, and observed that members obviously "put their heart and soul into it."
Patriots at heart
Just what is it that prompts these men to turn out some 13 times each summer, wearing heavy wool uniforms in the heat and humidity, to perform the flag ritual? Patriotism. By participating in this and other activities of the 114th, members not only demonstrate their patriotism but also hope to foster this characteristic in spectators, says Patton, a past president of the regiment's board of directors.
The activities also afford members opportunities to indulge a passion for history while trying to generate interest in this subject among others, says Duane Carrell of Springfield, a five-year member who is the current president and a corporal in the unit.
"It's an education for people," he says. "Some people really hit you with questions. I hate to make any comparison with Colonial Williamsburg (Va.), but being able to see people in period dress gives people a sense of going back in time and gives them a little more perspective of what it was like then."
Adds Patton: "We're here as ambassadors for Springfield and Sangamon County and the state of Illinois - ambassadors and educators, I'd say. We educate the public at least to the ceremonial part of the Civil War. I get the greatest joy out of talking to kids and trying to get them interested in history. That's where it all starts. It started for us that way."
In addition to its public appearances, the 114th promotes learning about history by sponsoring an annual contest in which high school seniors are invited to write an essay on a subject near and dear to the unit's collective heart: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. The contest rotates yearly among Cass, Menard and Sangamon counties - the counties that produced the 895 officers and enlisted men who were accepted into service as members of the original 114th Regiment on Sept. 18, 1862. Unit representatives judge contest entries, and the winner is awarded a $500 college scholarship.
Members of the group also visit schools to help bring history alive in the classroom. A not-for-profit organization, the 114th performs this service and the ceremony at Lincoln's Tomb at no charge (although a collection box is available on site for donations). However, donations are requested for certain appearances, such as when the group is the color guard for conventions, banquets and other events, Patton says. He adds that such invitations have increased recently with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
The money raised supports the group's major cause: preserving history and honoring the soldiers from the original 114th Regiment, who were mustered into service at Springfield's Camp Butler and fought under Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, by restoring the unit's battle flags that have fallen into disrepair, Carrell says.
"Illinois had 155 regiments in the Civil War," he says, "and every regiment had a regimental flag and a U.S. flag ... A lot of these flags were shot up, and people cut pieces out of them, so they are really in tatters."
Thus far, the group has had one of the 114th Regiment's regimental flags restored by a company in New York at a cost of $20,000. That flag is now on display at the military museum, 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd. A second flag, a United States flag, known by the group as the "national colors," is in the process of being restored by the same company; the work on that one is costing $25,000, Carrell says.
According to Patton, there are more than 400 flags from the Civil War and other wars that currently are in storage, awaiting restoration. Several years ago, the director of the Illinois State Military Museum, Mark Whitlock, enlisted the help of the 114th to remove the flags from the Hall of Flags in the Centennial Building, Patton says. "We had the flags catalogued and rolled up in protective material and taken to Camp Lincoln, where they were photographed and placed in a climate-controlled building.
"There is no state or federal money available for restoration or conservation of these flags. Three or four other re-enactment groups have come forth like we did. If we don't preserve the history of these flags for future generations, what's going to happen to them?"
Whitlock, who recently left Springfield to accept a position in Washington, D.C., says, "it was critical at that time that the 114th did what they did. It's truly because of the efforts of the 114th to conserve flags that future generations will have the opportunity to learn from them."
Paying homage to the soldiers from the 114th who fought in the Civil War was the reason behind the formation of the reactivated unit, Patton says.
"In 1969, several fellows got together and decided to recreate the 114th," he says. "Gov. Sam Shapiro reactivated the group by gubernatorial proclamation. That was a real feather in our cap. We are probably one of the first reactivated groups in the country by gubernatorial proclamation. Some groups come and go, but this one has been continually running for over 40 years."
Attention to detail
The 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry Reactivated originally focused on re-enacting Civil War battles, but has since evolved into a ceremonial group, although a few members, including Carrell, still participate in re-enactments that are "going on somewhere every weekend of the year," he says.
Each member of the group is responsible for outfitting and equipping himself, which costs "a bit north of a thousand dollars, depending on how close to detail you want to be and your budget," Carrell says.
"What we wear to an extent is very generic. Knowing what a particular unit wore at a particular time is hard to pin down. What we've got is as accurate as we can find out about it."
Although some members have made their own uniforms or had someone else make them, others have purchased theirs from present-day "sutlers."
"Sutlers were merchants who followed the Army in the Civil War," Carrell explains. "They operated private stands so soldiers could buy what the Army didn't issue."
Today, sutlers sell their merchandise at re-enactments and on the Internet.
Once a member has a uniform, weapon and all necessary accoutrements, he undergoes training in properly performing the flag ceremony and other functions. A background in the military does not prepare a member for participation in the group, since certain actions, like saluting, shouldering arms and turning corners while marching, were done differently during the Civil War than they are today, according to Carrell.
To be as historically accurate as possible, "all of the movements with muskets are prescribed in 'Hardee's Infantry Tactics' and 'Casey's Infantry Tactics,' " Patton says.
However, "the flag ceremony that we do is not prescribed in any manual," Carrell says. "We just kind of came up with a ceremony that has crowd appeal and accuracy."
The unit's authenticity in appearance and actions has attracted the attention of moviemakers, resulting in its members appearing in such films as "Glory" and "North and South."
"The movie industry is always looking for a way of doing their films without excessive cost," Patton says. "By getting re-enactors who know the drill and what to do and have their own uniforms and equipment, they don't have to train them and outfit them with clothes or anything else. This has made Civil War films now much more believable than they used to be."
Carrell says that the 150th anniversary of the original members' acceptance into military service, which will be observed in September 2012, will be commemorated with some type of re-enactment that currently is in the early planning stage.
"We are thinking of having some members in civilian clothes sign papers and be issued their supplies at the Old State Capitol," he says. "We are still kind of creating the concept, but that's something we very much want to do."
How to help
Sound interesting? Here's how to join up
Membership in the 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry Reactivated is open to males age 13 and older.
Members must be at least 16 years old to carry a musket, but younger members can serve as musicians, says James Patton, lieutenant colonel in the unit.
"We're always looking for drummers and buglers," he says. "We get some young people in as musicians, but once they get interested in girls and cars, we don't see much of them anymore. But when they're grown up, they start to come back."
The 40 current members of the unit range in age from their mid-20s to 85, but most are in their 50s and 60s, according to Duane Carrell, a corporal and president of the board of directors. With the exception of a member from Missouri, they live in the Springfield area.
Annual membership dues are $25, and each member is responsible for the expense of outfitting and equipping himself for the unit's activities. The board of directors meets the first Tuesday of the month from October to May, and a general membership meeting is held the second Tuesday of those months.
Anyone interested in joining the 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry Reactivated can send an email to email@example.com or call Carrell at 585-6895.
Soldier's Aid Society
Like their predecessors in the original 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry who fought in the Civil War, members of the reactivated unit receive support for their activities from civilians who belong to the Soldiers' Aid Society.
"We portray the civilian side of what went on during this time," says president Laura Reyman of Springfield.
Membership is open to both men and women and is not predicated on a connection to a member of the reactivated unit, but most current members are wives of men in the 114th, according to Reyman, whose husband, Jonathan, is the unit's chaplain.
Like members of the 114th Regiment, Soldiers' Aid Society members dress in Civil War-style clothing and accompany the men to various activities, including the flag ceremony they perform weekly during the summer at Lincoln's Tomb. Society members register visitors for a drawing, pass out postcards of the unit and mingle with spectators.
The civilian group was formed about six years ago and currently has about 20 members, says Lisa McLane of Monticello.
McLane, whose husband, Shawn, is the captain and the unit member who commands the participants in the tomb ceremonies, says that she became involved in the Soldiers' Aid Society because of her love of history.
"I don't think enough history gets taught in schools today," she says.
"They teach names and dates and call it done. History is about people, how they got through their day and how they lived."
For information about joining the Soldiers' Aid Society, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Carrell at 585-6895.
Story published Friday, September 2, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 5 )